Been Down So Long, Looks Like Up To Me

Lou Barlow's broken spirit; Jean Grae's faulty turntable; an olympic hopeful fan's fall

Last month, when Har Mar Superstar performed at Loring Park, I wanted to make a T-shirt for him that said, "You Must Be at Least Five Feet Tall to Ride the Pimp-A-Whirl." Because on that July night, the velvet-voiced Californian who once promised that he would keep gyrating "till the babies hatch" looked like he may have over-incubated some baby-mama's eggs. Right in front of the stage, some kindergartners were wagging their hips libidinously for the sweaty R&B singer. This week, that memory came flooding back to me as younger crowds came out in droves for all-ages concerts like the Bryant-Lake Bowl block party, Yo! The Movement at East River Flats Park, and End Transmission at the Dinkytowner. It's about time that a tiny music fan is finally able to put her milk money where her mouth is. Yet I'd imagine that there are still a few age restrictions that even Har Mar supports. If you want to be his hoochie, for instance, you've got to wait till you're 13.

 

Don't cry for me, indie rockers: Jason Lowenstein (left) and Lou Barlow of Sebadoh
Nathan Grumdahl
Don't cry for me, indie rockers: Jason Lowenstein (left) and Lou Barlow of Sebadoh

Sebadoh, Thursday, August 19 at the 400 Bar There's a sticker on Lou Barlow's guitar that says "I (heart)" with a blank space after it, a place where most iconic '90s indie rock bands would have scrawled in something like "extra-manly cardigan sweaters" or "girls with Buddy Holly glasses." But the Sebadoh frontman has left the space empty. Tonight, he just ain't feelin' the love. Though the crowd applauds and whistles at first sight of the mousy-haired sentimentalist, Barlow just whines like Napoleon Dynamite: "Shut up! God!"

Bassist and co-singer Jason Lowenstein shakes his head. "This is a good start to a good show," he says. "Some good aggression here."

Still, Barlow softens as his lo-fi love songs fall on an audience that has plugged its pieholes with Pabst. With multi-instrumentalist Eric Gaffney missing, a boom box emits prerecorded "live" drum solos--the only percussive accompaniment as Lowenstein and Barlow swoon through a string of pretty, grunge-lite hits: "Magnet's Coil," "Skulls," "Cheap Shot," "I Believe in Fate," and a host of other singles that Barlow admits he penned when he "bagged groceries at Food Mart, discovered marijuana, and wrote, like, 10 songs every day." "Bands don't do that anymore," he says. "Now you actually have to go onstage and sing a song you tried hard to write." Saddened by Barlow's melancholy performance, I later ask a friend if he thinks this show could mark the end of an indie rock era that favors D.I.Y. prolificacy over studio-session skill. But my friend has a more pressing question for me: "Is the boom box now your favorite member of Sebadoh?"

 

Olympic Hopefuls, Thursday, August 19 at the Turf Club At a time when local musicians have to skip the Greek games in order to play prime concert slots, it's good to see the music scene go wild over talented guys in tracksuits. As the Olympic Hopefuls bounce around in bright pop hooks, Merseybeat harmonies, smartly snarky lyrics, and matching jogging outfits, a packed house pogos along. "When did the Olympic Hopefuls suddenly become the new It band?" asks my friend. Watching one tipsy fan stumble over his dancing shoes and fall into the crowd, I'd say it happened sometime just before last call.

 

Jean Grae, Saturday, August 21 at East River Flats Park As noisy insects swarm around our ears, it's clear that the buzz surrounding this New York undie rapper isn't just coming from Vibe. "We're havin' a mosquito fest up here," says DJ Bizaro, swatting at the bloodsuckers.

"Minnesota, this is hip hop in nature!" Jean Grae responds, and then she raps about baseball, sounding like a natural. Name-checking Jackie Robinson, Mahalia Jackson, and Brittany Murphy almost in the same breath, Grae never misses a beat, not even when the turntable breaks down. As a hook from Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway's "Be Real Black for Me" stutters and skips, she just keeps rhyming, her voice low and steady with whatever internal rhythm lurks beneath that shock of Caramello hair. "Smack the person you're next to--I don't care what it takes to get live," Grae says, urging the crowd to put a single finger above their heads. The turntable ultimately breaks down completely, but Grae just uses the opportunity to deliver an a capella ode to her mom, and that single finger becomes a sea of bobbing hands. By the end of her set, as Bizaro beatboxes and Grae gives a shout-out to "all my people smoke a pack a day," there aren't any hands in the nicotine-clouded air. There are only fists.

ALBUM OF THE WEEK: MF Doom, a.k.a. Viktor Vaughn,Venomous Villain (Insomniac Music) The summer belongs to one comic-book superhero alone, and he's not the kind of guy who saves his beloved MaryJane; he's more likely to light up his bong and inhale right away. When sci-fi rapper Viktor Vaughn claims he's got "dope skills," the words rise from his lips like smoke rings, floating in an open-ended O that swallows everything in its path--film-noir sound bites, gothic blues guitars, shadowy cello samples, video-game bleeps--until it disappears into the ether. Then the needle skips on the record, and the hypnotic crackle of ancient vinyl roars in rhythmic waves. Somewhere in that ocean of sound, you'll hear Kool Keith, Poison Pen, Manchild, Carl Kavorkian, IZ-Real, and, anchored at the center, MF Doom, the Marvel-addicted emcee who plays Bruce Wayne to Viktor Vaughn's Batman. But touch Vaughn's reflection, and these Doomsayer beats ripple into unrecognizable patterns, spilling off the edge of the song. When the last track rumbles toward apocalyptic silence, the end of the word sounds like the end of the world.

 
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